Hearing on Snowshoes: A Gift of Shared Sounds

Gael Hannan
January 17, 2012

It’s mid-morning in northern Ontario, 25 below zero on the new scale, 14 below on the old.

Do I want to go outside and snowshoe, or stay in and drink good coffee?

In the end, I’m given no choice on this getaway, women-friends, wilderness weekend.

We’re going out, girl. Get ready.

Two layers of leggings, socks, boots, parka, earmuffs, scarf and mitts: how the heck am I supposed to hear through all this insulation?

Stepping outside, the sun is bright. Not bad, I think. And then the cold sharp air sucks the moisture out of my face. Before they can freeze up, my fingers move fast to strap on my snowshoes.

We hit the trail, winding through strands of birch, maple and fir, a few trees stubbornly holding on to brown leaves. It has snowed recently and with no wind to blow it away, the snow is clumped high on every tree branch. It’s quiet, very quiet.

Two of us snowshoe together, our poles punctuating every step in the snow.

“Mumhfl-plmf-pleflump” says my friend. Her hat is pulled low over her eyes and her fleece scarf is pulled high to her nose. This is a friend who supposedly understands my hearing loss, so I’m not sure how she expects me to lipread through her woollies.

“What?” I asked, pulling down my own scarf.

“Ble-flump, be-flump!” she says. Her eyes are scrunched, so she must be smiling.

“Gimme a break, I can’t read your lips, move your scarf.”

Freeing her lips, she says, “Isn’t this day gorgeous? Everything’s sparkly, and all these delicious little sounds? Tell me what you hear, Gael.”

“I can hear you babbling.”

“C’mon, what else? Let’s walk, listen hard, and then tell me what you hear.”

We continue on for a few minutes, sometimes single file, sometimes beside each other, not talking. I listen hard.

I hear the rhythmic crunching of our metal snowshoes and poles. I hear my own breathing inside my scarf, which is pulled so high over my nose that it fogs up my sunglasses. I hear a really, really loud crow. I hear her muffled swearing as we make a long, steep climb. (I don’t need to read her lips to know she’s using bad words.)

Beyond that, for me, there’s no sound. It’s quieter than any quiet I’ve heard for a long time – and yes, it’s gorgeous.

We stop for a moment, leaning on our poles and I tell her what I had heard.

“Beautiful. Here are some other sounds” she says. “The snow is making little plop noises as it falls off the branches. A breeze is rustling the whispery old leaves.”

I had seen those sounds as we were walking – the falling snow making little snow holes in the ground, the leaves moving to silent music. Beautiful images, but their utterance is below my hearing level, so now my friend is giving the pictures resonance for me.

My hearing friends tell me that conversation is difficult for most people out on the cross-country or snowshoe trails, so they usually don’t chat much. That’s good to know.  Maybe my husband and I will try an FM system out on the trail so we can share what we see and hear without having to rearrange our winter clothing to communicate. We will do that, one day.

That hour-long snowshoe in the cold was one of the most beautiful walks I have ever taken. I loved what I heard and I enjoyed the quiet. And I was grateful for my friend who stopped to share the trail’s sounds with me, as a gift.


  1. Wow, I love this… I have friends “who tell me what they hear” and I usually tell them what I see, as we who have come to be “hardwired” to hear with our eyes often see things a hearing person miss. I’d say you have a wonderful friend who takes the time to ask what you hear and then fills in with what she, as a hearing person, hears.

    I’m thrilled to see this story about snowshoeing, as I live in northern Minnesota and snowshoe myself, though we are ridiculously low on snow this winter, so I’ve not snowshoed yet this year. :o( I’m hoping for some snow, as I’m going on an adventure in mid February myself. A younger friend turned 50 and wanted to do a dog sledding trip to celebrate. I’m the only insane friend she has (I’ve wanted to do this trip since reading about it after moving to Minnesota from Atlanta in 2006), so I’m her partner on a 5-night trek into the frozen boundary waters!! We’ll spend two nights in a lodge, one night in a yurt, and two nights in winter tents!! Yikes!! I’m mushing my own team, so I’m out on the trails trying to get in shape for whatever than requires of me.

    Thank you for the picture, and for sharing your tale of a fabulous friend who gave you one of the most precious gifts of all — describing what she hears. She’s a keeper!! ~~ Michele

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